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Las Vegas’ retired ‘Cowboy Sheriff’ still holds sway

LAS VEGAS — The first thing you notice about Sheriff Ralph Lamb is that voice — the low, gravelly growl of a former five-pack-a-day Marlboro man. Even at age 85, Lamb still uses the plain-spoken utterances of an old-school lawman.

On his disdain of firearms: “Sometimes we had to use our guns, but sparingly. If a guy shot at me, I’d shoot back.”

And on his public image: “The church-goin’ people in town, the good people, they liked my brand of law and order — keepin’ things cleaned up.”

He was known as the Cowboy Sheriff and once was considered the most powerful man in Nevada. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the longtime rancher and rodeo rider served as the sheriff of Clark County — which back then was about the closest thing America had to the Old West, with gangsters substituting for gunslinging cowboys.

Along with his sheriff’s badge, Lamb wielded a blunt my-way-or-the-highway rule of law unparalleled in today’s policing world. With the determined gait of a young John Wayne, the 6-foot-2 Lamb managed the emerging gambling mecca with a mix of shrewd country wisdom and, critics complained, the capriciousness of a conniving big city politician.

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While he now prefers to stay out of the limelight, the name Ralph Lamb still carries weight in this town, and if you can prod him to start telling stories, he becomes a rare living reminder of a Vegas that no longer exists. The Rat Pack is long gone. The Dunes and the Sands were imploded. So too the Stardust.

But Ralph Lamb has stuck around.

His posture is still ramrod straight, whether he’s dressed in his Wranglers or a dress suit — those large eyes still shooting their direct gaze.

As Lamb walks into a pie shop north of the Strip, the waitress greets him as sheriff and gives him a choice table by the window where, for several hours, Lamb holds forth on his life and his legacy.

He has no regrets about either: “People say, ‘You know, we just can’t do things the way you used to, Ralph.’ But I don’t know why not.”

In his day, Lamb broke noses and rearranged dental work, “monkeying up” wanna-be mobsters with “the language those boys understood.”

Though he was voted out of office in 1978, Lamb is still considered a hero among the now-retired deputies who once worked for him. Like the waitress, many people still address him as sheriff, and most say it’s good to know that at least one thing in this ever-changing metropolis remains the same: Sheriff Ralph Lamb is still as down-to-earth as dirt.

Last year, on Lamb’s 84th birthday, former deputies threw him a party where they passed the microphone to tell their favorite Cowboy Sheriff stories. Once, 250 head of cattle escaped from the corral behind the Stardust Hotel, baffling deputies until Lamb rode up on a horse, telling his crew, “I’ll take care of this, boys.”

The riffs, jokes and stories were all delivered with cautious respect as Lamb sat in a lawn chair, saying little, silently guiding the proceedings, just like always.

In his day, Lamb’s law was simple: If you came to his town, you played by his rules. If you didn’t, you paid the price.

In the 1960s, he arrested 74 Hells Angels and gave them haircuts — after dismantling many of their motorcycles. “They were pretty shaggy,” he explains with a hint of a smile. “I was afraid they might disease-up the jail.”

Then there was the time he grabbed mobster John Roselli by the tie and worked him over in the lobby of a crowded casino. A newsman later wrote about how Lamb “slapped the cologne” off the young tough known as “Handsome Johnny.”

At the height of Beatlemania, Lamb demanded that the Fab Four show up at his office to apply for entertainment licenses before performing in town. Maybe they’d heard of Lamb, because the boys from Britain complied.

But Lamb is also credited with bringing Las Vegas law enforcement into the modern era, introducing such concepts as crime labs and suburban policing. He oversaw the transition of a department that once sent 40-man posses out on horseback to one where deputies trained at the FBI Academy.

What old-timers mainly recall, though, along with the butt-kicking, is that gruff but twangy Lamb delivery. “People figured I was from Texas if they didn’t know better,” he says. “They’d ask ‘What part of Texas are you from?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m from right here.’”

This fall, in a new CBS series titled “Vegas,” actor Dennis Quaid takes on the persona of a 1960s-era sheriff named — what else? — Ralph Lamb. The script, written by “Goodfellas” creator Nicholas Pileggi, has Lamb called into the city from his ranch by the mayor to battle a ruthless Chicago wise guy.

Co-screenwriter and executive producer Greg Walker believes the years have done little to slow Lamb. “Here’s a guy with fists the size of holiday hams, broad-shouldered and standing tall, chin out there, at age 85,” he says.

“When he walked through the Bellagio casino in his suit and cowboy hat, dealers looked up, people turned back and whispered, ‘That’s Ralph Lamb,’ ” recalls Walker. “It was a slow walk, not hurried, that came with the distinct attitude that he was still in charge.”

At the pie shop, Lamb’s cool demeanor falters, however, when he relates how both his grandfather and father died in horse accidents. Lamb’s granddad was thrown at night during a cattle drive, and his father was crushed while trying to save a 12-year-old boy whose horse had bolted during a rodeo.

“It was a sad affair,” says Lamb, a grandfather and father of three grown children. “My dad was a big, young, good-looking guy, just 40. He had a baby born that very day, the last of 11 children. Had the telegram in his pocket when he died.”

Lamb, just 10, worked hard to help his mother run the ranch in the tiny outpost of Alamo, 95 miles north of Las Vegas. In 1947, after returning from World War II, he became a sheriff’s deputy in rural Henderson. He drove car No. 78, one of eight deputies covering an area of 9,800 square miles that included Las Vegas, population 15,000.

He ran for sheriff in 1960 on a platform that Las Vegas needed to better handle its burgeoning population and growing sophistication brought by the casinos. In office, Lamb held a soft spot for the working man. Rather than haul a hapless drunk driver off to jail, he’d let the guy’s wife dispense justice at home.

His biggest headache was the hoodlum crowd. As Lamb tells it, hoods were like wild broncos — you had to ride them, show them who was boss.

He kept tabs on tough guys by throwing a few coins to the kids parking cars in the casino lots and developing a network of tipsters who’d alert him when a gangster was coming to town. The more colorful characters suspected he bugged their phones, a charge that makes Lamb scoff with a wave of a big hand.

For years, Lamb waged a cat-and-mouse game with a young lawyer named Oscar Goodman, who in 1999 became Las Vegas mayor. In the 1970s, Goodman recalls representing “a lot of folks whose last names ended in vowels that Lamb didn’t want around town.”

One day, Kansas City crime boss Nick Civella landed in Vegas for a favorite dinner of pork necks in vinegar at a local casino. Lamb met his flight and sent him home.

“He was livid. He wanted to file a civil rights lawsuit,” Goodman says of Civella. “All he wanted was those pork necks.”

Goodman called the sheriff to arrange a meeting. Lamb agreed to meet at 5 the next day. “OK, I’ll see you at 5 p.m.,” Goodman recalls saying. “He said, ‘No, 5 a.m.’ That’s the kind of guy he was. It was a Wild West town back then, and Lamb had a bunch of tough deputies who were there to do his bidding.”

But cracks eventually appeared in Lamb’s public persona. Critics believed that as both sheriff and chairman of the county’s regulatory Liquor and Gaming Control Board, Lamb had opportunities for malfeasance. “He always wore suits way beyond his salary,” Goodman says. “I can’t put it any other way.”

Lamb says he never took a dime that wasn’t his: “I always stayed clean, I just dressed up. I knew where I belonged.”

A year after being acquitted on federal income tax fraud charges, Lamb was voted out of office. He still hates to think of it. “It hurt me,” he says.

Years later, Lamb doesn’t envy working lawmen. “Those boys have it tougher,” he says. “They have to be more careful.”

Lamb lives alone in a small ranch house in North Las Vegas. His wife, Toni, died four years ago, and he’s only got one younger brother left of 10 siblings. An eye disease forced him to quit riding rodeos two years ago at age 83. He still enjoys the simplicity of Louis L’Amour westerns, which for Lamb hearken back to a more honorable time when men meant what they said.

After all these years, Lamb laughs about his tough-guy image. “A lot of guys could have whipped me,” he says. “They just never came along.”

john.glionna@latimes.com


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